The Crow is one of the most emotional, powerful horror/action movies ever made. It still hits all the right notes for me. I still feel something every single time I watch and that’s really all the feature sets out to accomplish. It’s a sappy, yet bitter, overly-romantic love story about pain and loss and recovery. It’s The Notebook for horror and action fans of the Hot Topic generation. None of that makes it less important. I sincerely believe that those are all strengths, of which it has many. The production design is insanely good, the cast is great, Brandon Lee shines in a performance that was tragically ended before the completion of the film itself.
It would be a lie to say that the accidental death of its star didn’t hang over the movie, or that it doesn’t continue to do so even now. Of course it does. Luckily, the film was completed and audiences were able to see the performance that Lee was most proud of. It was the role he knew would define his career, even if he had no idea it would be his last. He didn’t live to see the release of this picture he’d been so proud of, but it certainly resonated with audiences. People responded to The Crow. It spoke to many people, myself included, on a very profound level.
Given that, it was naturally granted a sequel. Because of the circumstances, I don’t think there was ever a way to make a follow-up to The Crow that would be widely received. There’s just no way it could ever have gone well. But I think, even though City of Angels was put out a little too quickly, there was a clear effort made to do something a little different and not hinge on comparisons to the original.
It was the right call to go back to the mythology that the original film and source material had established and not bring back Brandon Lee’s character. People were already not willing to give a sequel a chance after his death, to bring back Eric Draven would have been such a huge mistake—even though they did recast that character for the television series.
While City of Angels is the only direct sequel in what would become the Crow franchise, it still tells a different story of another person brought back from death to avenge themselves and someone they loved. This time it’s Ashe, killed alongside his son when they just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. He’s guided by Sarah, our returning character from the original, who’s now a young woman because the film is set about ten or so years in the future.
I’m not going to lie to anyone and say that The Crow: City of Angels is great, but the question of “Is it that bad?” is an interesting one and something that warrants a decent amount of thought. I absolutely think that it met with an unfair amount of criticism—and still does—simply for existing. But it doesn’t step on the toes of the original at all. If anything, all it does is expand that universe and that’s something I’m always going to approve of. I want more good Crow movies all the time, because it’s a mythology with virtually limitless possibilities.
The major performers in City of Angels are strong. Vincent Perez is not a bad actor by any means, although his performance as Ashe is at times a weird one. It’s never quite clear what he’s going for, but there are some really interesting moments that separate him from Eric in that Ashe doesn’t seem nearly as motivated by revenge, even if it’s what he came back to do. He spends a large chunk in the middle of the film just hanging around, talking to priests and generally not coping with the fact that he’s come back from the dead.
Much of this, I think, was there to set up the original ending, which got replaced at the last minute. Originally, the whole idea was going to be that Ashe, being so different from Eric, couldn’t have the same ending. He wouldn’t complete his circle of vengeance and would instead be doomed to wander the earth as a restless spirit forever. Honestly, that seemed like the sort of thing he’d be into.
The great Richard Brooks—still memorable for a single episode of Firefly, that’s how good his performance was in said episode—provides us with our villain, Judah Earl. He’s an interesting antagonist because he’s such a spiritual one. Possibly more spiritual than Ashe, who is technically an actual spirit. He speaks with a sense of calm and purpose and, refreshingly, seems to understand who his character is and where he’s going from scene to scene.
If there’s any performance that saves the movie, though, it’s Mia Kirshner as Sarah. I’ve been a fan of her as an actress for a long time and she does a terrific job here. She comes into a role that was established by a child actor only two years before and makes us believe wholeheartedly that she is that person. It’s clear that Sarah’s had a hard life, that she’s not grown up in terrific circumstances, but she’s got a strong heart. All characteristics from the original that are naturally evolved and applied in a new way.
There are so many little moments that make her performance stand apart. Just a single scene of Sarah sobbing in her car after getting a gun pulled on her tells us everything about her character. She’ll cry, she’ll be vulnerable and terrified, but she’ll do it on her own and in her own space where nobody else can see her.
City of Angels looks like a Guillermo Del Toro movie, even if it doesn’t feel like one. It has his same visual palate. Specifically, it is just so overbearingly yellow. This boasts a strong visual style and, more importantly, does a great job of setting it apart from the original and helping it to stand on its own.
Is it that bad? No. Is it that good? Also no. A movie doesn’t have to be great to be unfairly dumped on and never given a chance. It’s a meandering feature that doesn’t really go anywhere and never feels quite sure of exactly what it wants to be. But there are strong moments, solid elements even if the whole is a bit muddy. And I don’t think those elements get the attention they really deserve.